The current landscape of streaming equivalent-inclusive sales numbers and streaming corporation-backed releases has considerably muddled our perception of commercial success in hip hop this year. Free projects can now feasibly go "platinum," albums can top charts without moving a single physical or digital copy, and-- this one actually happened-- the #10 album on the charts can actually outsell the #1 "bestseller" of the week. Even more so than Flatbush Zombies, whose 3001: A Laced Odyssey was the #10 to ANTI's #1 in that scenario, the one rapper who's succeeded largely by old-school methods this year is Kevin Gates. Sure, the now-gold-certified Islah certainly has some streams to thank for its big numbers, but Gates' triumph seemed to come from out of nowhere, with no features, little promotion surrounding the album, and the one hit single thus far ("2 Phones") really only taking off a few weeks after Islah's release. "Grassroots" is a difficult term to use these days, but Gates' diehard fans-- exemplified by the kid who crashed the stage at this year's People's Choice Awards to shout out the Baton Rouge rapper-- came out in droves to buy his debut album. 

Musically, Gates ensured that Islah was a worthy payoff for fans who'd followed his many mixtapes by jacking up the hooks while keeping his bars top-notch and generally smoothing out the once-eclectic sound he pursued on The Luca Brasi Story. Outside of the aggro "Thought I Heard," the mood of the material was best described by a line on "The Truth" that spoke to the Jekyll/Hyde split personality Gates has been working with for years: "Brasi turn back into Kevin sometimes." Whereas a good deal of his early work (especially both Brasi tapes) found him adopting the name and persona of the Corleone family's enforcer to explain his own beginnings as a bodyguard, Gates seemed more focused on grown man shit on Islah, mostly talking about his family, but also reserving a more measured tone for his street tales. He clearly wanted to get back on his roughneck steez for Murder For Hire 2, and wisely decided to do so by focusing more on his younger days, as well as the lives of the younger dudes he hangs around, in whom he can see a lot of his past self. 

After a lyrically invigorating ("You still in the trenches, I been grinding/Menace on my mind, I kept it silent") but ultimately unnecessary update on OT Genasis' "Cut It," Gates goes into full Brasi mode on "The Prayer." Harnessing his notorious toilet humor for diss purposes rather than his usual gross-out sex talk, Gates refuses to give anyone his sauce, rapping one of the most brutal lines of his career: "[You] needed moisture, wouldn't give you urine." The song's hook is delivered in Arabic, and Gates' flow throughout is exhilarating, but that's about the extent of experimentation on MFH2, where the beats are pretty much boilerplate trap across the board, and Gates doesn't cover any new ground with his subject matter or vocal stylings. He seems to have found the mode that works best for him, and while he doesn't let it ever get boring, the tape on the whole is lacking the looseness and adventurousness of his best free projects. 

Those flows, though. Witnessing Gates slowly build up into the rapid-fire delivery of "Showin' Up" is impressive as hell, as is the fact that he maintains that rhythmically dextrous pattern throughout most of the two verses. He succeeds with any pattern and delivery he chooses throughout these eight tracks, never letting the syllable-cramming sound forced or the melodic soaring get corny, and at this point in his career, that innate sense of what works and what doesn't is applaudable. You can kind of sense Gates locking into a comfort zone though, which is something I never would've expected from a man so defined by his contradictions, at least until I heard Islah. Consistency seems to be the new normal for both Gates and Brasi, and while that may mean that we'll never get a two-song sequence as awesomely baffling as The Luca Brasi Story's booming "Narco Trafficante" into the supremely chill Curren$y-featuring "Just Ride," it makes sense for Gates' progression. The dude still contains multitudes, but on a tape as brief and low-stakes as MFH2, you'd be forgiven for not noticing that.